Joe ‘I am not a doctor’ Barton denies any “medical negative” for mercury, smog, and soot pollution

Coal combustion isn’t healthy (see Accounting for total harm from coal would add “close to 17.8¢/kWh of electricity generated”). Rep. Barton (R-TX) is not a “medical doctor,” but he plays one in Congress, deciding his own “hypothesis” about the health effects of mercury, soot, and smog is better than the decades of peer-reviewed literature on the subject. Better get out the head vice before reading Brad Johnson’s report (with video):

At a congressional hearing on Friday designed to lay the groundwork for an effort to delay critical EPA toxic pollution standards, Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX) claimed that reducing emissions of toxic mercury, sulfur dioxide and soot would not bring health benefits. Though conceding he is “not a medical doctor,” Barton offered the “hypothesis” that EPA estimates of the benefits of its proposed air toxics rule are “pulled out of the thin air” because there is no “medical negative” to the pollution:

To actually cause poisoning or a premature death you have to get a large concentration of mercury into the body. I’m not a medical doctor, but my hypothesis is that’s not going to happen! You’re not going to get enough mercury exposure or SO2 exposure or even particulate matter exposure! I think the EPA numbers are pulled out of the thin air!

Watch it:

The new power plant toxics rule will put over 30,000 people to work upgrading plants to dramatically reduce toxic mercury and other chemicals that cause neurological damage to fetuses and babies. Those upgrades will also cut enough particulate pollution to prevent as many as 17,000 premature deaths, 11,000 heart attacks, 120,000 cases of childhood asthma symptoms, 11,000 cases of acute bronchitis among children, 12,000 emergency room visits and hospital admissions and 850,000 days of work missed due to illness.

Barton blasted the testimony of NRDC Clean Air Director James Walke, asserting “you’re not having the medical negative” from mercury, sulfur dioxide, or particular matter pollution.

He even argued enforcement of the air toxics rule would hurt Rep. John Dingell’s (D-MI) city of Detroit, where nearly one in three children have asthma, and where one power plant alone emits 1,235 pounds of mercury every year.

Barton denied decades of science and the experience of anyone who has ever lived downwind of a polluting facility, noting the factory and plant owners on the panel didn’t know of any workers inside their plants that have gotten sick from the pollution.

“I guess he forgot that the people most in risk of getting poisoned “” babies “” don’t work in factories,” Clean Air Watch’s Frank O’Donnell responded. “This is pretty appalling stuff, since Barton and colleagues will probably soon be voting on legislation to delay toxic pollution cleanup.”


BARTON: In your testimony you say that these standards would save 17,000 lives, in terms of premature deaths a year I think, is that not correct?

WALKE: That’s taken from EPA’s projection that up to 17,000 lives –

BARTON: Let’s stipulate that it’s a number that you got from somewhere else.

WALKE: Yes sir.

BARTON: I’m going to ask every private sector individual here. I’ll start with Mr. Fannon. How many cases in your company were there last year of mercury poisoning reported?

FANNON: None that I know of.

BARTON: Does anybody know of mercury poisoning because of emissions from any of your plants? Do you know how many there were in the country last year? Zero. Zero. How about SO2? Any of you have any history in your plants of SO2 poisoning? Now, we cut SO2 emissions by 50 percent in the last decade, and this, if implemented cuts it another 50 percent, but takes it from 4 million tons a year annually to two million. Now, Mr. Walke, it’s not your statistic but it’s reported all the time! There is absolutely nothing to back it up!

WALKE: Congressman Barton, with all due respect –

BARTON: Nothing!

WALKE: “” that’s not correct.

BARTON: Do you know how many “” I’ll ask you. How many pounds of mercury are emitted from an average 500-MW coal-fired power plant a year?

WALKE: Congressman Barton, those deaths –

BARTON: Do you know the number?

WALKE: “” are attributed to deadly soot pollution –

BARTON: Do you know the number?

WALKE: “” particulate matter, not mercury. So I want to be clear the basis of my claim. It’s particulate matter that kills people. EPA is not claiming mercury deaths.

BARTON: All right, now let’s see that backed up.

WALKE: I’d be happy to and it’s a great thing for this committee to have a hearing on with the National Academy of Sciences and the EPA.

BARTON: The average 500-MW coal-fired power plant produced three pounds of mercury a year. Three pounds. According to Mr. Walke’s testimony these standards reduce this by 91 percent. Well that’s great! So you go from three pounds per plant to three tenths of a pound per plant. But that’s per year! Now, to actually cause poisoning or a premature death you have to get a large concentration of mercury into the body. I’m not a medical doctor, but my hypothesis is that’s not going to happen! You’re not going to get enough mercury exposure or SO2 exposure or even particulate matter exposure! I think the EPA numbers are pulled out of the thin air! And I’m going to send a document to the EPA, let’s back them up!

Because the entire premise for going forward with these standards is you get such a tremendous ratio of benefits to costs because they claim according to Mr. Walke’s testimony, he’s an honest man, and he got it from somewhere, is $140 billion annually! Well, if you don’t really have the benefit, because you’re not having the medical negative but you really have the costs “” and if you don’t think the costs are real, just look how many factories are closing and going to Mexico and China, look at the population of Mr. Dingell’s home city, Detroit, MI, it’s fallen by 40 percent I think in the last twenty years, if you don’t think those are real “” so, if we’re going to have a real debate about these standards, Mr. Chairman, we need to start getting some real numbers from the EPA and getting the EPA up here, if it takes Mr. Rush’s help and Mr. Dingell’s and Mr. Waxman’s, if the benefits are not real and the costs are real, we’re absolutely wrong to force those standards!

Brad Johnson in a Wonk Room repost.

26 Responses to Joe ‘I am not a doctor’ Barton denies any “medical negative” for mercury, smog, and soot pollution

  1. Gordon Parish says:

    Mr. Barton worries about the benefits not being real, but that the costs are real… it is likely that the costs are not real or that they are at least overestimated…

    An oldie, but a goodie, from Eban Goodstein…

    Behind the Numbers: Polluted Data
    In one case after another, both corporate lobbyists and academics have overestimated the costs of environmental regulation. Herewith the surprising explanation of why they’ve been consistently wrong.

    Eban Goodstein and Hart Hodges | November 1, 1997

    As an environmental engineer… yeah, i have seen a lot of what Goodstein describes here…

  2. Lou Grinzo says:

    I can’t begin to express how much I wish we lived at the center of the kind, nurturing, and convenient universe that Barton imagines. It would make our lives ever so much easier. But that’s not how it works, of course, and when he says incredibly irresponsible things like this, he only encourages some Americans to believe his twisted fairy tale. And the result is less environmental regulation and more harm to people.

    I hope he’s getting paid very, very well by fossil fuel and chemical companies for his words and actions. I’d hate to think he’s selling his soul and the health of Americans for a pittance.

  3. Mike Roddy says:

    Lou, Barton and his friends have been bought cheap. Like streetwalkers, they will do anything in the back seat of a car, and for a pittance, too- as long as someone still calls them “Congressman”.

  4. This is precisely the kind of cultivated ignorance and willful disregard for simple truth that is immoral. It is unethical and near criminal to represent people with such attitudes. Congress needs to clean up its own house. Barton’s words clearly represent the carbon fuel industry. Sad and disgusting.

  5. DaveE says:

    Plants are closing and moving to Mexico because of power plant regulations? I didn’t know that we were importing that much power from Mexico. Mercury is not a problem? Well, I guess we can start telling people that they don’t need to worry about how much fish they are eating, even if they are pregnant. Guess those warnings were overstated, but overstated or not, the mercury came from those power plants that are only emitting 3 pounds of mercury a year.

  6. catman306 says:

    I’m not a brain surgeon, but I’d be happy to practice on
    Joe Barton
    Dick Cheney
    Rupert Murdock
    Glenn Beck
    the Koch Brothers
    and thousands of others.

    It’ll be a learning experience.

  7. Scrooge says:

    Aww mercury aint that bad. Just a few cases of mental retardation. In most instances its a lot less than what causes retardation, it just makes children stupid.

  8. rab says:

    I’ve just finished reading Grisham’s “The Appeal” . I recommend it highly. Written in 2008, it lays out a fictional scenario highly parallel to the BP disaster.

  9. Joan Savage says:

    For the standard reference of peer-reviewed information on mercury, go to the toxicology database of the Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry (ATSDR). The ATSDR is maintained by the Centers for Disease Control, which is under the Department of Health and Human Services.

    Scroll down to the substance of interest, and be prepared to download large pdfs. Mercury has a 676 pg. document.

  10. Joan Savage says:


    Congresspeople and senators have access to the resources of the Library of Congress. They can ask the LOC to look up this stuff for them, so there is no excuse for fabricated estimates of toxicity.


    Particulates and soot vary in composition, so they are not in the ATSDR alpha list of tox profiles. But I am sure the LOC staff could look up what is available on them!

  11. Bill W says:

    This was a speech carefully designed to play well in sound bites on Faux News. Especially the “he got it from somewhere” comment.

  12. Dana says:

    More anti-science rhetoric from the GOP. Now mercury and smog don’t cause health problems. Forget all the science behind the EPA standards, because Upton’s ignorant “common sense” tells us otherwise! What a relief, now we can breathe (smog) much easier.

    I also didn’t realize Detroit has lost jobs because of pollution standards. I thought it had more to do with the auto industry failing, in large part because it failed to make the fuel efficient cars people wanted. I guess I learned something new today. Pollution is great, and clean air kills jobs!

  13. sault says:

    What happens if someone giving testimony would actually call these congresspeople out on their BS? Seriously, what if the witness told Rep. Barton or any of the others that they’re outright lying, that they are causing more unnecessary deaths and that they (Rep. Barton especially) are providing a huge return on the investments the fossil fuel industry has poured into their campaign coffers? There’s data backing up all of these assertions and it isn’t hard to know what long-debunked talking points these MORANS will spew out. I mean, the NRDC is already pretty much persona non grata in a Republican-controlled House, so what have they got to lose? This is what it took to end McCarthyism the first time around and a few nights in jail might be the price of stopping it this time around.

  14. Pythagoras says:

    “…— and if you don’t think the costs are real, just look how many factories are closing and going to Mexico and China, look at the population of Mr. Dingell’s home city, Detroit, MI, it’s fallen by 40 percent I think in the last twenty years,….”

    Well, why can’t the congressman write a law to even the playing field?

    Congress certainly has the right to set duties on imports or to create tax incentives or tax credits to offset the cost of installing pollution control equipment.

  15. Mike Roddy says:

    sault, I would love to see that happen. Maybe you can come up with some ideas as to logistics, legal processes, etc.

  16. Wit's End says:

    Can somebody please pinch me and wake me up from this nightmare?

  17. Barry says:

    Once again, Americans must be so happy and relieved to know there is nothing they can do to stop the rise in childhood neurological damage and asthma, plus all those other deaths and illnesses.

    Just gotta live with all that extra misery because it is beyond our control.

    If coal pollution did cause some of those things, well then a wealthy “can-do” nation like America could do something to protect our kids and seniors.

    But as the GOP once again makes clear, we are helpless.

    I liked America better back when we could actually figure out complicated problems and create solutions that made life better. But I guess those days are gone. The new GOP makes it clear we can’t understand the threats we face and we can’t fix them.

  18. Judith Blythe says:

    Maybe he needs to go home to Texas and spend a few weeks in the fires. That will let him know how harmful soot is to his lungs – whatever the makeup of the particulates. We can all chip in for his oxygen therapy.

  19. Andy says:

    Mercury poisoning isn’t usually fatal so Dr. Barton is starting with a false premise. Mercury poison is a slow road starting with mental impairment and loss of coordination eventually resulting in uncontrollable shaking. Mercury poisoning also results in developmental disabilities in children starting with exposure in the mother’s womb.

    The best known case of mercury poisoning, or Minimata’s disease (named after the Japanese fishing village where it was first diagnosed) in the U.S occurred in Minnesota. A family had been eating fish caught by a Texas shrimping family who had shared their catch with the Minnesotan relatives. This family received an acute exposure to mercury and became incapacitated through uncontrollable shaking. The mercury contamination was traced back to fish caught in Lavaca Bay. The bay was found to be heavily contaminated with mercury. The EPA found that this occurred through the spillage of mercury from a chemical plant’s loading dock. The bay is still polluted with mercury although it is a superfund site.

    It’s important to note that this family received an acute dose of mercury through eating a lot of fish that happened to be caught over a mercury hot spot in the Bay. Most fishermen in the area reported no ill effects. Undoubtedly many Texans were exposed to mercury from eating Lavaca Bay fish, but their symptoms and impairments are not easily diagnosed. They just live with being mentally and physically impaired having no idea why God (Joe Barton) chose them to suffer.

    The big spurt of coal power plant construction in central and east Texas during the 1970’s and 1980’s was predicted to bring wide spread mercury poisoning to residents of East Texas through the consumption of contaminated fish. The biologists who made these predictions were ignored.

    The predictions came true as the mercury built up in the environment and was then expressed in the food chain of most of the East Texas reservoirs. Most of these lakes now have fish consumption advisories because of the high levels of mercury found in them. People who consume more than the recommended amount of fish; and these amounts are paltry and the advisories are often ignored, are being poisoned by mercury and are suffering ill effects.

    Yes, it’s hard to tell what effects are attributable to mercury and which are attributal to other pollutants or diseases, but mercury levels in blood are a predictor of effect.

    This study documents the levels of mercury found in blood, urine and hair of East Texas residents. Note that the average levels show some reason for concern, but that some individuals in the study are undoubtedly being impaired through high mercury levels. The exposure of developing fetuses and children to mercury is also undoubtedly having ill effects.

    I’m going to stick this in a letter to Joe and to the whatever paper serves his constituency along with his ridiculous quotes. I’ll guess I’ll also send a copy to my congressman, the nutball named Ron Paul.

    Joe: thanks for making me aware of what Joe Barton and his ilk are up to. I won’t let this slide without some argument from his constituents.

  20. Daniel J. Andrews says:

    Why are people testifying so respectful to people like Barton? Can’t you just call him on his bluff. E.g. “Senator, I have decades of research from the best scientists around the world documenting the detrimental effects. What is your evidence that allows you to dismiss that sum of hard won knowledge? Show me your evidence? Where did you get it from? You say I have nothing–who gave you that idea? The onus is on you to back up your statement”.

    Why can’t people put him on the defensive instead of sitting their politely just responding to his stupidity? Is there some U.S. law that means people can’t even politely contradict or even question a Senator?

    You don’t have to say “Senator, if you’d stop talking and start listening, you might learn something”, and you don’t have to be rude (very tempting though). Just ask questions back. Take the case of Rorhabacher a while back where he kept trying to talk over Santer(?), or was it Alley?,and jumping from one debunked meme to the next without letting the expert finish answering the meme. Why couldn’t Santer (or Alley) have said, “Excuse me, Senator, could you please repeat the answer I just gave you. I want to make sure you understood it before we move on to your next point”.

    Instead, these brain-damaged idiots run the show with impunity, saying the stupidest things that would get them laughed out of grade school, but no-one is even saying, “How do know that?”, or “I’m sorry, but you are just plain wrong…”, or “Did I use too many big words for you, you cockroach?” (okay, maybe not that last one).

    Maybe part of being elected could be a blood/tissue test to see how much mercury or lead you have in your system. Too much and you can say, “I’m sorry, sir/ma’am, but your levels of Pb and Hg indicate you’re probably brain damaged and not equipped to be in a leadership position of an ice-cream truck let alone a government. Have you considered applying for a job as a scarecrow?”

    Just very frustrating. I can’t imagine how the scientists and experts must feel in the face of such selfish short-sighted stupidity. In their situation my diplomacy dike would crumble and the inner arsehole can be held back no more (as Tim Minchin might say). Still, why can’t the experts ask questions back? Is this some sort of Roberts rule of order–that needs to be changed if it is?

  21. Daniel J. Andrews says:

    urg…there, not their; respectful should be respectfully (I think), and …siighhh…just ignore grammatical errors…I’m just appalled at what is happening down there. Condolences from your northern neighbour, and I sure hope Barton and Rorschach (yes I know) aren’t contagious.

  22. sault says:

    Hey, the more mercury in your system, the more likely you are to vote for these idiots. It’s an electoral strategy, just like the ongoing wars on public education, research, and public broadcasting.

  23. Ian Forrester says:

    Listening to Barton reminded me of the tea party in Alice in Wonderland. Remember the stupid Mad Hatter? Didn’t he remind you of Barton? Of course it did, but why did hatters become mad, didn’t it have some thing to do with mercury?

  24. Russell says:

    Though this Barton makes me long for the golden age of Martin and Fish, many of these comments are cause for cognitive dissonance. There is more than one way of being dead wrong about epidemiology, and for levels to fall while statistics rise is often diagnostic of one ( or more) of them being in evidence.

  25. Anne van der Bom says:

    For republicans there are two types of mercury. Only the mercury in CFL’s is toxic.

  26. Russell says:

    For Democrats there are two types of methane. Evil Methane is the result of using hydrofrakking to produce the Good Methane that displaces coal as a fossil fuel.

    [JR: I don’t follow what you’re saying, but it sounds false.]